Who is the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition?

Our mission is to reverse the trend of mass incarceration in Colorado. We are a coalition of nearly 7,000 individual members and over 100 faith and community organizations who have united to stop perpetual prison expansion in Colorado through policy and sentence reform.

Our chief areas of interest include drug policy reform, women in prison, racial injustice, the impact of incarceration on children and families, the problems associated with re-entry and stopping the practice of using private prisons in our state.

If you would like to be involved please go to our website and become a member.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Upswing in Felony Filings

We have new cops on the street and new DA's, felony filings in walkaways from halfway houses and drug charges are not going to help our already overburdened prison, local jail and judicial systems. Crime often goes up because of the criminal activity that is associated with addiction. Especially when we use our criminal justice system to deal with public health issues such mental illness and substance abuse. We have new crimes being created in the legislature every year, so it is up to this legislative body to rethink and restructure what has been considered criminal by past legislators.

Prosecutors across Colorado filed a record number of criminal cases last year, continuing a six-year trend that has resulted in a 30 percent hike in felony cases statewide.

In fiscal year 2006, the state's 22 district attorneys pursued felony charges in a total of 46,501 cases, up from 35,770 in fiscal year 2000, according Colorado Judicial Department statistics.

Views differ on what is driving the trend.

Doug Wilson, Colorado's chief public defender, attributes the rise to several factors, including an upswing in drug cases and a recent tendency for prosecutors to file felony escape charges against offenders who stray from halfway houses.

Another possible explanation, he suggested, is the result of term limits that ousted 13 veteran District Attorneys in 2004.

"The only thing I can attribute that to is decision-making by relatively new DAs," Wilson said. "I think people are getting their feet wet."

Some cases where prosecutors exercised what he considers discretion
are being routinely filed as felonies, Wilson said.

The numbers tend to support that theory. In the 13 judicial districts where term-limited district attorneys left office in 2004, felonies increased 36 percent, rather than the 30 percent statewide average.

Veteran prosecutors are quick to point out other factors.

But defense lawyers say the sheer volume of cases has taken a toll on the quality of justice being provided, causing overburdened case loads and in the end, a burgeoning number of inmates.

The 240 public defenders in Wilson's office carry an average case load of 383 defendants per attorney, he said. That's more than double the load recommended by the American Bar Association.

One immediate consequence of a higher felony prosecution rate can be seen in the growth of the Colorado Department of Corrections. In the period between December 2002 to December 2006, Colorado's adult inmate population grew from 18,551 to 22,350, an increase of more than 20 percent.

"It's no secret; we're bursting at the seams," said DOC Executive Director Ari Zavaras.

He noted that Colorado is currently doubling the size of the State Penitentiary and has requests for proposals out to add 2,200 male inmate beds and 750 female inmate beds.

Another consequence of the heavier criminal dockets is an increase in cases that are being resolved through plea bargains. While felony filings are up 30 percent statewide, the number of cases going to trial has only increased by 9 percent. Some portion of the remaining cases are being resolved outside of court.

Methamphetamine is fueling a large part of the surge, said Dave Thomas, a former Jefferson County district attorney who is now executive director of the Colorado District Attorney's Council.

Meth leads to drug charges and related charges such as theft, check fraud, identity theft and violent crime.

Rocky Mountain News

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